The Business Side of Writing: Does an LDS Market Author Want or Need an Agent?

Going off of the comments I got on last month’s post, let’s talk about writing for the LDS market and whether or not an agent would be beneficial. I think the best way to approach this topic is to list off the agent related comments I hear every now and then in LDS publishing and deal with them one by one. Then we’ll discuss whether or not my answers mean you want an agent. So, here we go – feel free to add more in the comments:

Agents are pointless and take your money without providing anything in return.

FALSE. A good agent can make your career even if you sell fewer copies than authors who are not making a living. A good agent raises your advances by more than the 15% commission said agent charges. A good agent keeps doors open for you so that if things sour with one publisher, you can move on to another. I’m not saying agents are miracle workers because they aren’t. What they are is specialists, and a good specialist will do a better job negotiating contracts than you will (unless you’ve got the skill-set of an agent yourself. In order to get that, you need to be negotiating contracts continuously in your genre.)

A bad agent is a waste of money, but a bad anything is a waste of money. If you guys want, we can talk about vetting agents next month.

Agents merely complicate the process and slow down the publishing schedule.

FALSE. Agents negotiate the contracts, and any publisher should have at least one person who does the same. If they aren’t equipped to discuss terms with their authors, they’re not equipped to work with the kinds of authors who can afford to negotiate their terms, meaning they aren’t equipped to deal with professionals. Any joint venture requires negotiation. If the other party won’t negotiate with you or your representative, then they don’t see the process as a joint venture. They think that they’re doing you a favor, or that you work for them and they can dictate the terms. No contract is better than a contract created under those circumstances.

That publisher does not allow agents and will not deal with them.

Apparently this is TRUE. There are publishers in the LDS market who have this stance. These, in my opinion, are publishers who are not worth your time. They don’t afford you the respect of sitting down to discuss the terms of your arrangement and they demand that things be done their way or not at all.

Now, can such a publisher be a gatekeeper to a market that you wouldn’t access without them? Yes, actually they can. Is it a market you want? Well, it isn’t big enough to support an author with an agent, so unless you are desperate to have a publisher name on your book spine and a few sales to people who didn’t go to high school with you, I would say, don’t bother.

Sales in LDS publishing are too modest to support an agent negotiated deal.

Well, if that’s true, then that says very poor things about LDS publishers. It’s also FALSE. I’ve seen one contract in LDS publishing for a $60,000.00 advance, for a scholarly work written exclusively for an LDS audience. This wasn’t an Obert Skye or Brandon Mull crossover novel. This was a theological work. Now, there may not be room for many books in this niche to command those fees, but suffice it to say, the LDS market does have the potential to move a substantial number of copies.

Besides that, there many examples of LDS authors who crossed over, including the aforementioned Obert Skye and Brandon Mull. Jason Wright also springs to mind, and I’m sure there are others. It may be rare or unusual, but this is also the case outside of LDS publishing. Writing is just a hard way to make a living.

Bear in mind that people who say LDS publishing doesn’t have the potential to make you any money might actually be saying that they think *you* don’t have the potential to make any money. It may have nothing to do with the market you’re in at all, and if you want to be a writer, you just have to get used to hearing people say stuff like that.

No agent would be interested in working with an LDS publisher.

Mostly TRUE, but technically FALSE. LDS publishers are in a niche market and agents usually work in the national market. LDS people are a distinct minority, so in general, LDS themed books have limited marketability. However, there are always exceptions, and to be blunt, the big publishing successes are pretty much all exceptions. What might be a straight up LDS allegory to us might also be wickedly entertaining to an audience who knows nothing about us. Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card is, at its core, a retelling of The Book of Mormon. It sold to a national publisher with an agent negotiated contract. For that matter Scott’s books for Shadow Mountain, an imprint of Deseret Book, which were about the women of Genesis had the paperback rights sell to a national publisher.

In other words, just as there’s no one recipe for success, there’s no one recipe for failure either. It’s unlikely that an agent will see your publishing offer from Zarahemla Books (no slight meant to the company, I’m just using a *really* Mormon name there) and want to negotiate it for you, but stranger things have happened and in the arts, you’re going to rely on strange things way more often than any sane person would ever dare. LDS authors with small press contracts have been on Oprah and The Today Show. It does happen.

Agents these days are turning eeeeviiiil!

This one’s in direct response to Jonathan’s question about this blog post by The Passive Voice. In it The Passive Guy quotes another blog post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch in which she details all the dirty underhanded things publishers have done to her and how agents are not working for authors anymore but rather for their agencies.

So, okay, here’s the scoop: 1) The publishing industry is always in flux. Power ebbs and flows and reroutes its course all the time.

2) Ever since the recession of the 80′s, midlist authors have suffered. First of all the regional distributors all merged together into a few mega-ones. Being a regional bestseller isn’t really a thing anymore, when it used to be a viable way to make a living without being Stephen King. More lately, those of you who haven’t been in a coma for the last decade will know that bookstores have taken a huge hit, leaving us with one national bookstore chain, B&N, who engages in ever so fun business practices like getting into fights with publishers as big and powerful as S&S and consequently refusing to distribute their books. Gone are all the small corner bookstores and grocery racks where a little known author could nevertheless move some decent volume. Print publishing has become a sweepstakes. You either hit it big or not at all (at least, in comparison to how things were thirty years ago). Kristine Kathryn Rusch was and is a midlister – and that is not an insult. I know some people use the term that way, but it’s a misuse. A midlister makes a living without being mega-famous. We should all be so lucky as to end up midlisters. Midlisters lately are being starved to extinction and their agents have turned to some rather unsavory, cannibalistic practices to try to stay afloat. The ranks of midlist authors have thinned tremendously, and it’s a real shame. Kris is right in the middle of a nasty set of forces, so if that’s where you end up, Kris is as good a guide as any.

3) It is still possible to knock it out of the park. The indie authors I work with have come to me with some pretty darn nice contracts. Some of them have made a *lot* of money. That economy, where you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling, does still exist and both King and Rowling were no one once upon a time. Now, don’t count on this happening, but you know what? Shoot for it anyway. Some people do make it, and have agents who can and do shepherd such a career along.

4) To directly answer your question, Jonathan, the LDS market is not in the same deteriorating condition as the national midlist, so Kris’s comments are not especially applicable.

So do you want an agent?

Your goal in a writing career should be to have a successful writing career and there’s no single doorway into that. A good agent is one possible doorway, so it’s worth researching who the good agents are and subbing to them. Most people I know nowadays are succeeding with their indie sales first and agents come calling, so that’s another door. Look at all the doorways you can find and knock on as many as you can, is my advice.

All right, anything you guys would like me to follow up on next month?

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6 Responses to The Business Side of Writing: Does an LDS Market Author Want or Need an Agent?

  1. Wm says:

    Thanks, Emily. My only thing is I wonder if there are any agents that would really be enthused to work with the LDS market. I’m sure some would if the deal was large enough, but is there anyone who really knows it and would want to work it?

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      Work the LDS market exclusively? No. It just isn’t big enough in my opinion. Help you break out of the LDS market and into the national one? Sure. Let’s face it: there are about 7 million Mormons in the US, half of whom are active give or take. 3.5 million people is just over 1% of the US population, and an agent isn’t going to work exclusively in a market niche that small.

      A good agent would break out out of your niche anyway, no matter what it is. If you want to make a living at writing, then I strongly suggest planning your own escape from the LDS exclusive distribution channels.

  2. Cindy W. says:

    Thanks for the informative post, Emily.
    I’m curious to see what you think about LDS market authors who are exclusively indie. If such authors have no plans to sign with a publisher, should they still consider agents? And if they consider agents, does this mean they should think of contracts with a publisher?

    All the big name LDS authors I can think of who are making it as indies actually write for a mainstream national audience, so maybe this is not relevant in that case.
    Which brings me to another question: is writing exclusively for an LDS audience as an indie author curtailing the potential of any success? (I guess it depends on the definition of success.)

    But more and more, the LDS market authors, the ones who are best-selling authors with publishers, are turning to mainstream audiences instead (either as indies or with national publishers), so it does pose the question whether writing for the LDS market is a niche better left to die.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      Since agents broker deals with publishers, then the two go hand in hand. You wouldn’t have an agent if you never sold any rights to a publisher, and an agent wouldn’t have you in that situation either.

      My own opinion about writing LDS fiction will taint my answer, I know. I believe that if only Mormons understand what you write, that is a weakness in your writing. I also believe that non-Mormons will read stories about Mormons and even put up with a certain amount of religious talk if the characters are well rounded and the story is well plotted. My personal opinion is that the reason why most LDS books don’t go mainstream isn’t because of the subject matter. Now here I’ll be controversial. I think they don’t go mainstream because they aren’t as well written as the competition and sometimes contain prejudicial and judgmental viewpoints against non-Mormons. I.e. The Work and the Glory – the one member of the family who doesn’t join the church becomes a gambling, womanizing creep. Obviously, that isn’t going to play well with a wider audience.

      Whereas people bought millions of copies of a book about a girl who wanted to be a vampire, even though this would mean going to high school over and over again for eternity. You can’t convince me she’s more relatable than we are. “People outside the church wouldn’t buy our stuff” is a cop-out in my opinion. If it was well written enough, they would.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Hi Emily,

    Thanks for your thoughts, including your response to my query. Personally, I take stories like the ones I reference in my earlier comment (and that you referenced here) as cautionary tales rather than generalities. But it’s interesting stuff nonetheless.

    Personally, I’d love to hear you follow up on how to vet agents. I’m also curious: are there any agents working in LDS publishing (aside from agents for a national author like OSC who also publishes occasionally in the LDS market)? Does lack of knowledge about the LDS market in particular limit the effectiveness of agents who might try to represent an author who is publishing in the LDS market?

    On a different topic: something that concerns me in the national market is the (apparently) large number of publishers who say they won’t look at manuscripts from un-agented authors. While I can understand how volume of manuscripts might lead them to take such a stance, in practice I have some real problems with it. I worry in particular about having to satisfy an agent with my writing, before it gets to someone who can actually write a check. While I’m happy to get feedback about my work from anyone, I don’t need or want an agent I have to satisfy editorially, if that makes sense.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      I plan to write about vetting agents next! Re: lack of knowledge about the LDS market – I really don’t think agents need much special, specific knowledge. There’s nothing unusual about our publishing market that would affect how you negotiate the deal. Bookselling is bookselling, really – and if you mean agents who know what Mormons like to read, the truth is, most Mormons don’t read a whole lot of LDS fiction.

      The catch-22 about needing an agent before you get a publisher and a publisher before you can attract an agent is an old one, as I’m sure you’re aware. Having said that, while some agents get into the editorial details of the books they review, that’s not really a deciding factor in most cases. The simple truth is, they want to rep stuff that’ll sell a lot of copies and they’re matching books to editors. What they look for in your book is, “Are there any editors looking for this and is this piece strong enough to sell to them?” Hence, your objective and theirs is pretty much in alignment.

      Publishing is a business and business is about making money. I’ve gotten pretty good at predicting winners in the new adult romance genre I write in, and it has nothing to do with how much I like the book and whether I’d buy it myself and everything to do with knowing the trends and the readership and how other similar books are performing. So whether you are pitching to an editor or an agent, you’re pretty much going to make the exact same case for your work, so always pitch with that view in mind.

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